When I worked in Mexico for a summer at a children’s home during my college years, I was fully immersed in Spanish night and day. We were located up on the hillside in the low income area of the city. I had one day off each week, and usually I would travel down to the resort area along the beaches so that I might just hear someone speaking English. Just hearing it gave me a boost. Hearing your most intimate language, the language you have known since you first began to speak, is a soothing, calming experience when you are in a place that you are not used to hearing your own language and your mind is always working on overdrive to listen and interpret what you are hearing around you. I have seen it many times when I meet a native Spanish speaker here in the US. When I can offer some words in Spanish to them, their face relaxes, and they are clearly more comfortable in conversation when they hear their most intimate language being spoken.
That is the feeling the Jews from many nations must have experienced when they heard their own languages being spoken in Jerusalem on that Pentecost day. It was a pleasant shock. “Oh, yes! I understand completely! This is comfortable. This is good news.” Remember that Peter and the other disciples are Jews speaking to other Jews who have gathered for the annual religious celebration called the Feast of Weeks, always held 50 days after Passover to mark the giving of the Torah and offering up first fruits to God. In Greek it was called Pentecost, pente meaning 50. This year Pentecost turned into something very different, an unexpected way for God to communicate with them.
The Spirit is aflame, lighting up the eyes and hearts of those from the diaspora, the Jews who live spread out around in other nations and who have gathered to celebrate together. What a head rush it would be to suddenly hear the mighty works of God in Jesus Christ in your most intimate language. From the mouths of people who were not native speakers! What a story you would have to share upon returning to your family and friends! The Spirit is aflame, spreading from a small group of disciples turned apostles to a bigger group now poised to share the story of Jesus in multiple nations.
As we mark the pouring out of the Holy Spirit into the mouths and hearts and bodies of those first followers of Jesus, we mark a miracle of speaking, yes, but also a miracle of hearing. Speaking does no good unless there is a recipient on the other end who can understand the words. Speaking and hearing are essential to clear communication. You know that well when you try to have a conversation with someone who is hard of hearing, or someone with an accent that you are not familiar with. Speaking is only one half of the required equation.
Have you ever thought about what language God speaks? No matter what language we are most intimate with, we all assume that God speaks our language. And indeed, God does. So an easy answer might be that God communicates in all languages. I love the concept shared by Yale Divinity School professor and Baptist minister Willie James Jennings that “God speaks people, fluently”! God knows people no matter what language they speak. God speaks and love comes out. God speaks and people are drawn into the circle of love and grace. Jennings reminds us to see that language is the people who speak it, who love the place where they live and work and play and pray. Today, in addition to English, we heard Falam, Chinese, Spanish, Twi, French, Swahili and Tagalog—each and every one of those languages represents a people, people who are the language of God.
God speaks people. The Holy Spirit was poured into the disciples, forging them into apostles who would be sent out now to communicate the mighty works of God through Jesus Christ in ways they would never have imagined. They now speak people too. The surprise of this Pentecost day never ceases to amaze me. Yes, Jesus told them he would send a comforter, an advocate, a companion. But there is no way these men and women would have expected this kind of arrival of this Spirit of Truth. Blowing like a mighty wind, like the wind which blew over the waters at creation. Burning with tongues of fire that don’t consume or hurt, like the flames of the burning bush Moses encountered in the desert. Amazing gifts of speech which make communication much more likely to succeed. Ears perked up at the hearing of their own language. The group of apostles stood in front of the crowd, living testimonies to the power of God working through them. In this first sermon for the newly forming church, Peter pulls from the Old Testament prophet Joel, making a connection to the power of God’s spirit as a prophecy making power for all who receive it. Not prophecy like telling what is going to happen in the future, but prophecy which is truth-telling. Prophecy that points to the places we see God at work bringing change to the world we live in. He is using the prophet’s words about the outpouring of the Spirit to help his Jewish listeners understand what God is doing here. Their question: “What does this mean?” Is important. This was an unprecedented event and no one could understand it at first. What does this mean? Pentecost means times, they are a-changing. God is working in a new way in their midst. Pentecost means this new Spirit-created community is made up of people who are needed for God’s work in the world. Pentecost means that God equips this new community, and OUR community, to be sharers of this same truth, to be guided by this companion who is the Spirit of Truth. Pentecost means we are not off the hook. We must pay attention to the language we use. If we only speak in terms that we know well—grace, salvation, prayer, praise, forgiveness—church-speak, we might call it—we can easily miss out on helping someone else to truly hear and understand. There are lots of other languages out there… the language of engineers, musicians, landscapers, IT professionals, medical staff, or military service men and women, for example, each with their own abbreviations, vocabulary and mode of communicating with one another. We may not “speak their language” on a daily basis, but we are called by the Spirit to find a way to communicate in a way they will understand. Then there are those who communicate most intimately with emojis, shared links, texts or photos on Instagram and other social media platforms. Are we willing to try to speak their language? How are we reaching them?
Our English class has been meeting for more than 6 years on a very regular basis, offering a place for native speakers of other languages to have a comfortable, conversational time for working on English language skills and meeting new friends. It currently meets on Sunday mornings, and is open to all. Some of you have taken advantage of the opportunity to work on your Spanish skills with native Spanish speakers. Suzanne Jewell has taken that ministry and run with it, dedicated to preparing a lesson for whoever shows up each Sunday morning. To draw in more students, we have created a “Summer Session”, which began today. We did some advertising in the community this past week and started a new class on Pentecost! Perhaps you saw our new signs as you came into the building this morning. People from ______. What a gift it is for us to foster communication on multiple levels. Together we work on speaking people, offering welcome and encouragement, relationships and support, a place to develop understanding for all. Whether you hear the music in English or in Swahili, it is the Spirit of Truth who brings the goosebumps to your neck and the tears to your eyes. Rejoice and give thanks—God speaks people. Always. Amen.